In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein story, chef and television personality Mario Batali offered up his views on how to combat sexual harassment in the workplace for an Oct. 30 video for Fast Company.
“You need a workplace free of fear, that harbors an excellent feeling of the potential for collaboration and creativity,” he said. “And if you want to keep really talented people around, you need to create an environment for them that harbors excellence.”
Weeks later, Batali has taken leave from his restaurants and has been removed from co-hosting duties on ABC’s “The Chew” after the website Eater reported today that four women, all unnamed, have accused Batali of sexual harassment. In the wake of the allegations, the Food Network announced it is putting plans to relaunch his seminal show, “Molto Mario,” next year on hold.
One woman described two instances where Batali made inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact with her, while the others alleged that Batali groped their breasts and buttocks at industry parties. Three of them worked for him, while the fourth has not but works in the industry. Batali has stepped away from operations of his empire of 26 restaurants worldwide, which he co-owns with restaurateur Joe Bastianich, though he remains an owner. He apologized in a statement provided to The Washington Post, saying:
“I apologize to the people I have mistreated and hurt. Although the identities of most of the individuals mentioned in these stories have not been revealed to me, much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted. That behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or discomfort I have caused to my peers, employees, customers, friends and family.”
Batali is one of the most famous chefs in America, known for his red hair and affection for Orange Crocs. His first restaurant, Po, earned him a show, “Molto Mario,” on the then-burgeoning Food Network. He went on to host other shows, including “Mario Eats Italy” and “Ciao America,” and has appeared on numerous others, including “Iron Chef America.” He has published 11 cookbooks (including two co-written with Jim Webster, a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post) and has a charitable foundation in his own name. The James Beard Foundation named Batali as the nation’s Outstanding Chef in 2005.
Batali’s reaction to the allegations — a public apology, along with stepping away from public duties while he attempts to “regain trust” — is perhaps an indication that the TV personality and famed chef hopes he can weather the scandal.
But it’s unclear if there will be more fallout for Batali. An ABC spokesman issued a statement indicating the network would look into potential violations of its standards of conduct. “We have asked Mario Batali to step away from The Chew while we review the allegations that have just recently come to our attention,” the statement read. “ABC takes matters like this very seriously as we are committed to a safe work environment. While we are unaware of any type of inappropriate behavior involving him and anyone affiliated with the show, we will swiftly address any alleged violations of our standards of conduct.” Co-host Carla Hall declined to comment, via an ABC spokesman. Batali did not appear on Monday’s episode of “The Chew,” which was prerecorded.
And the hospitality group co-owned by Batali and Bastianich also released a statement, noting that the company has had sexual harassment policies and training in place for 10 years, but would take additional measures to make it easier for employees to raise complaints about higher-ups.
“We have decided to take a further step beyond our current policies and practices to ensure all employees feel comfortable and empowered to report issues,” the statement reads. “If employees have claims they want to make against any corporate officers or owners specifically, they may now contact the outside corporate investigations firm T&M Protection Resources, LLC, who has discretion to independently investigate complaints and report to outside counsel.”
The Food Network issued this statement: “Food Network takes matters like this very seriously and we are putting relaunch plans for ‘Molto Mario’ on hold.”
It’s not the first time that Batali’s name has come up in conjunction with sexual harassment. News reports over the years show that his restaurants, like much of the rest of the industry, were a place where sexual comments and behavior went unpunished. Babbo employees, particularly, have been the source of several complaints.
In May, Babbo pastry chef Isaac Franco Nava filed suit, alleging that he was harassed because of his sexual orientation. The lawsuit names the restaurant as well as Batali individually. Nava, who is gay, alleges that colleagues called him a “f****t” and “girly,” and that Batali should have done more to stop the abuse. Nava was eventually fired, he alleges, when he was accused of stealing a single pork chop that another employee had told him he could cook for himself.
“Isaac was subjected to vicious discrimination including anti-gay, racial and sexual slurs and ridicule,” his lawyer, Eric M. Baum, said in a statement to the Post. “He had the utmost respect for upper management, but when he complained about his mistreatment they turned a blind eye.”
In a 2011 suit, Babbo server Eugene Gibbons alleged that employees (other than Batali) would regularly hit him on the buttocks and grab his genitals, while Batali and co-owner Joe Bastianich did nothing. Gibbons declined to comment to The Washington Post, citing his settlement from the lawsuit.
Another server, Stephanie Capsolas, who led a $5.25 million wage lawsuit against Batali, filed a separate suit alleging that she was sexually harassed at Babbo. Her suit accused executive chef Frank Langello — not Batali — of making crude comments and lewd gestures “several times a week,” the New York Post reported.
In Bill Buford’s 2006 book “Heat,” a behind-the-scenes look at Babbo, chef Elisa Sarno complained that a prep chef was harassing her and spoke crudely in the kitchen, calling broccoli rabe, or rapini, “rape,” and talking about visits with prostitutes.
“But Mario told her there was nothing he could do. ‘Really, Elisa. This is New York. Get used to it,'” wrote Buford.
Gossip columns have also hinted at Batali’s behavior far before our current #MeToo moment. One 2007 New York Post story said that female servers at Babbo were “fed up with getting pinched as they pass through the kitchen,” and one server was “furious that chef Mario Batali called her a piece of ‘hot ass,'” the paper reported.
Batali has an unusual way of praising his female employees, too. In an Oct. 26 Page Six item lauding Batali for having an all-female kitchen at Babbo, the chef said: “It’s not because they have a vagina. It’s because they’re the smartest people for the job.”
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